In our world of harsh binaries between good/bad, love/hate, liberal/conservative, creator/consumer (to name but a few), learning is seen as the opposite of playing. In other words, there is a time to learn which is separate from playtime and the purpose of the latter is to take a break from the former. Over the last few decades, we have, unintentionally or not, removed play from school and after-school free time. There is an incline toward adult-directed structured activities where children learn skills and rules, such as music lessons or the practice of a sport so they learn to play the guitar or play soccer, for instance. What tends to be sacrificed is time to play freely while playing music or sports, by themselves or with other kids, and without adult management.
Playful practice can be filled with joy and passion, which can lead to a much wider set of skills than classes alone help achieve. Being engaged in an activity just for fun allows creativity to flourish because it dissolves the boundary between success and failure or correctness and mistake. In contrast, as Peter Gray describes in The play deficit, rote-memorization and learning how to ace standardized tests fundamentally teach obedience and passive consumption of ‘facts.’ The more the imbalance between studying and playing grows, the less children will have the opportunity to be creative, take initiative or develop physical and social skills.
As an intermediary space between reality and fantasy, free play means entering a protected zone where one learns to survive after making mistakes, taking risks and facing challenges. Perhaps video games allow for this to some extent, but the inherent isolation and built-in structure severely limit social play and creativity. Playing pretend, making up games or even playing freely with balls and sticks necessitates greater input from each child who must use their imagination and solve problems. Children who play with other children must figure out how to determine fairness, how to be assertive without being bossy and how to negotiate with others. Sometimes that means bending the rules to adapt to circumstances, channelling anger differently to be heard or being attuned to the needs of others to keep them interested in the game. The presence of adults who regulate the activity takes away the children’s opportunity to make their own decisions and take responsibility for them. Free social play also helps foster the ability to empathize and to connect emotionally with others.
Adults can also get into the spirit of play through creative endeavors such as writing, painting, pottery-making, and cooking – individually or in groups. Even taking a break from tasks to play music can spur new ideas that may not have emerged through intentional thinking. Similarly, taking a break to talk to someone can help us process thoughts in a novel way. To access this other ‘play space’ that is not entirely “real-life” or entirely a dream, we must carve out time & space that temporarily give us a safe distance from the mindset of competition and the internalized rules telling us how we should or should not feel, think, act.
The consultation room can be one of those breaks from the outside world, where patients can engage in playful exploration with their therapists. A session has temporal-spatial boundaries within which play is not only possible but also encouraged. While operating within a solid frame, psychodynamic therapy sessions are structure-free, and the patient is free to choose the topic. For forty-five minutes, one can step into the therapeutic sandbox where, by engaging in free association and dialogue with the therapist, one stumbles upon oneself and gets back up armed with new ideas. It may not be easy, especially at first, but the adoption of a playful attitude in therapy adds a layer of amusement to the work of self-exploration and growth. Letting go may feel risky and thus both scary and exciting; it is important that the level of risk be commensurate to the level of readiness. So, try to have some fun during your sessions: you will learn a lot.